Four months, six days and fifty-two minutes after the war ends, Ino is called by the Hokage.
She arrives five minutes early, stony-faced and dead in the eyes, dropping down to one knee to bow to the most powerful woman in her village. Everything is back to normal except not because her father is dead, Shikamaru's father is dead, Neji is dead and while Sasuke is… Not quite pardoned for his crime, he is safe from being executed.
"Yamanaka," Tsunade murmurs and Ino lifts her head up to meet the woman's stare head-on. "I have a job for you."
Ino doesn't reply and quietly waits for her debriefing.
"The girl in Uchiha's rogue team," the Hokage begins and Ino pictures the redhead in her mind, "is an Uzumaki. The fact that she is the daughter of a clan Konoha was once allied with does not pardon her crimes as a subordinate of Orochimaru's as well as escaping from her imprisonment by our shinobi."
"She helped in the war," Ino states.
"She put me back together," Tsunade adds. "Literally. But this is not enough for the Elders and they wish she is tried separately from the rest of Uchiha's group."
Ino stands back to her full height. "What do you ask of me?"
"I am assigning you to interrogate her," Tsunade says, leaning back in her seat and crossing a leg over the other. "She toys with my usual interrogators and she is… Immune to Ibiki's charm. A girl her age can probably get her to crack, don't you think?"
"What am I looking for?"
"Of what kind," Ino asks, tucking stray strands of white-blond hair behind her ear.
"Of her wrong doing," Tsunade answers and the look in her amber eyes tell a different story.
Ino reads them clearly; her mission is to find a way to save the girl, Naruto's one and only living relative, some innocent girl that the Elders did not even know yet were planning to condemn. She gives a solid nod and accepts the scroll that makes her mission official. Ino turns away, her long hair swaying behind her like a metronome, in sync with her footsteps.
Ino pauses outside the door locking Uzumaki Karin inside a sound-proof room, waiting for her and their first session. She turns to look at the man next to her; he towers over her, all broad shoulder and bulky build, scarred face looking down at her, his eyes of steel scrutinizing her and picking out everything that is Inoichi and everything that is not.
"This girl is a firecracker," he says and his tone oozes the disbelief of Ino being able to do her job correctly. "Keep your guard up."
"I know what I'm doing," she answers, watching him open the door and walking in without a second glance his way.
She's sitting on a chair, wearing Konoha's horrible prisoner-jumpsuit and leaning her chin into one of her open palms. Her eyes are closed and her glasses are drooping down the slope of her nose; she looks bored and uninterested and Ino almost grins because she's felt that way more than once, when it comes to the authorities.
"Why do we keep trying this," she drawls, slinking down until her forehead rests against the edge of the cool table. "I got nothing interesting to tell you; same shit, different day."
"I bet these gorillas have no class," Ino starts, placing her clipboard down on the table before taking her seat. She watches as the girl snaps up, her flaming red hair flying around her like blood in a battlefield. Ino smiles all icy cold on the edges with walls keeping the smile from reaching her eyes. "Hello, Uzumaki Karin."
Karin does not return the greeting, settling for turning into a lioness and examining the new meat right in front of her. Ino watches her wine-red eyes observe every inch of her; her flak- jacket, her hair, her facial features, her hands, her posture—everything. There is radio silence for a good five minutes as Ino waits for Karin to settle down and get comfortable.
In return, Ino does her own studying. She takes in the bite marks on her collarbones, standing out from the jumpsuit's open collar and Ino tries not to tilt her head in curiosity.
"Well then," she begins, shifting her position so she can look as slouched and bored as Karin did. "Let's start, hm?"
"New tactics," Karin drawls, lips barely moving. "Smart people."
"Oh please," Ino scoffs, rolling her gray-blue eyes. "This has nothing to do with them."
"I have nothing to say."
"I'm not here to get answers for their questions," Ino says, her eyes locking with Karin's. "I'm here to get to know you."
Karin throws her head back and lets out a bark of sarcastic laughter. "Get to know me? Why on Earth would you want to get to know me? Who has bothered to ever get to know me—I'm just some girl from a clan I know nothing of and abilities that I get used for. I'm nobody. Please," she glares at Ino, her lips curling into a sneer, "If you're going to handle the job, at least try harder."
"Oh," Ino scoffs, "Cry me a goddamn river, sugar. My father died in that stupid war yet here I am doing my goddamn job. Your sob story doesn't sway me."
By now, they're both standing from their seats, hands slapped on the surface of the table that sat in between them, the tips of their noses touching and their eyes narrowed with disgust. There are drums playing in Ino's ears and she takes a deep breath, pulling away and taking her seat. She closes her eyes, counted to ten and exhaling her annoyance.
She clears her throat, "What are you to Uchiha Sasuke?"
Ino raises an eyebrow, taking notes on her clipboard and waiting for Karin to explain.
"Nothing more to say there," Karin sighs, shrugging a shoulder and leaning back on her chair, raising her bare feet to rest on the table. "I was a tool and nothing more."
"You like him."
"I like his chakra."
"Dark and dangerous," Ino's eyes spark, swallowing a snicker and settling for flipping her thick ponytail over her shoulder. "Unsurprising. But if you were just a tool to him… Then why'd you follow him on his misadventures?"
Karin plays with the ends of her hair, her eyes on the ceiling as she mules over her thoughts, trying to find a good answer to give. "I'm a survivor, girl."
"Ino," she corrects, "I'm a survivor. I am a spawn of a clan long dead and since its demise I've been moving and finding stronger people to keep me alive. And I stick to them like a leech until I find someone stronger."
To this, Ino looks up from her clipboard, examining Karin once again and picking out little things that can easily be overlooked. She has a scar on the right side of her jaw, the closed wound colored just a shade and a half paler than her skintone. And she has bags under her eyes from sleepless nights; who knows, maybe they're from being kept up in Orochimaru's hideouts, listening to the screams of other test subjects.
But if Ino tries, if she puts her heart to it and drops the act of a cold princess, she can see traces of Naruto. Like the same worry-lines on her forehead, the same crookedness at the edge of her smirk… She seems familiar yet not, this red-haired orphan with no home and no history to define her.
"Karin," Ino says, dropping the clipboard on the table. "Let's cut the bullshit. I don't want to ask basic questions and you don't want to answer anything."
"Go on," Karin drawls, pushing her glasses back up her nose.
"Let me enter your mind."
Ino rolls her eyes, tucking strands of her hair behind her ear. "It's part of my clan's abilities. I did it throughout the entire war—"
"Y-you're that girl…" Recognition fills Karin's cold eyes but Ino ignores it as she gives a solid nod.
"Yes, exactly. By entering your mind I can find my answers and I can learn who you are."
"You mean invading my space."
"No," Ino shakes her head. "No, I wouldn't do that."
"Look here, girl," Karin slams her hands on the table again, standing up and snarling at her. "I have done nothing to get this village to hate me—nothing!"
"Then let me prove that," Ino whispers as she, too, stands up.
Karin stares at her for a good two minutes before she moves away, walking towards the door and banging at it and demanding she be taken away. Ino does not move, does not blink, and does not take her eyes off her even as the guards open the door and grab Karin, taking her away with her giving Ino one last glance over her shoulder.
They see each other three days later.
Ino requests that Karin be kept in her cell as a means to get the imprisoned girl to soften up. Ino can only imagine how it must feel to be locked in an interrogation room, really, it is no wonder the redhead is so against cooperating. She is led down a hall filled with empty cells; the chatty guard informs her that the three members of the rogue group Taka are kept on different floors to prevent any plotting.
She is quiet as she is informed of little things, tensing up when the guard shows disgust at having Sasuke walk freely with such a light sentence. Ino does not have romantic feelings for the estranged member of Team Seven but he is one of her own and is quick to get defensive. She quickly and dismissively changes the subject, asking the guard about any behavioral problems he has with Karin throughout his shifts.
He has none.
She sighs, internally, wondering what exactly the Elders are to win with the execution of an innocent girl one of the last of her clan and with the clan's abilities in her veins. Naruto is an Uzumaki but he is much too chaotic and unique to have the special chakra of an Uzumaki; charisma, is what he has. And that stupid smile.
Meanwhile, Karin has her chakra. She's been doing her research on the girl, learning that she's a sensor which explains a lot about her comment of Sasuke's chakra.
"Here we are," says the guard and Ino gives him a frosty smile.
He unlocks the door and gives her specific instructions to get his attention to come and get her out. The door is locked behind her and Ino stares as Karin sits on the messy bunk that is her bed, curled up, hair disheveled and eyes distant.
"Hello, Karin," she greets, placing her hands on her hips, head tilted back.
Karin turns towards her, an eyebrow raised and lips curling into a snarl. "What do you want?"
"I'm here to see if you've put thought to my offer."
"Che," Karin scoffs, shifting on her bed and looking away. "What's it to you, anyway? All of this—what do you get out of it? You're probably some clan princess, why are you out doing the dirty work of those less fortunate?"
Ino rolls her eyes skyward and prays for patience, cracking her knuckles and taking a few steps forwards. "You're right, I am. I'm clan leader now because my father is dead yet I make no decisions for myself for the benefit of my clan because I am just a seventeen year old kid and my Elders are the ones that tell me what to do. I'm just a face—I'm always just a face. My sensei was killed by the Akatsuki; you know what it's like to hold a dying man and have no strength or power to save him no matter how much you want to? You know what it's like to be forced to fight his corpse in a stupid war? You're not the only one with a sob story, Karin; I'm just more willing to share."
Karin stares at her long and hard, shifting positions again so that she can face her fully.
"How do I know you won't go into personal things?" She moves a hand and the shackles rattle with the gesture. "If I let you come inside my mind, I mean?"
"Oh please," Ino flips her hair, "Give me some credit, I'm not going to invade your privacy."
Karin continues to stare at her before she nods, slowly, and Ino smiles at her—a real smile, one that reaches her eyes and colors her facial features with life. She is quick to act before Karin changes her mind; she finds a comfortable place where she can sit so her body won't drop when she leaves it.
She takes a deep breath and stares at Karin, her hands and fingers in position for her Shintenshin. "Okay, here we go."
Ino's in a village she does not know.
There's chaos happening; villagers running to and fro—through her—pushing and shoving each other. Some try to carry personal belongings, others have their hands too occupied with their young and then there are some that simply run on their own with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Ino's blue eyes grow wide as she whirls from one side to the other, trying to make sense of the madness around her. And just as she begins to understand that there is an evacuation, the world around her goes black. The scene returns a minute later and Ino's breathing hard, grabbing at her head as the fading and unfading continues.
It's not until one of the scene's reanimation that she catches a redhead carrying a baby of about six months. Ino narrows her eyes and rushes after the woman, gasping when she realizes that the infant is Karin being taken away by her mother. She only has a second to let that sink in before she watches the village grow dark.
When she turns around she freezes at the sight before her:
An enormous wave—a tsunami—is making its way to devour the village whole and suddenly Ino understands what the madness around her is for. She turns away from the massive body of water, running from it and forgetting that she is nothing but a phantom in someone else's memories, unable to get harmed and unable to stop things from happening.
This is how Uzushiogakure disappears out of existence, taking her children with her.
She emerges in a classroom. For a second, Ino believes she's a little girl again and she desperately seeks her younger self amongst the crowd of children—looks for Sakura, looks for Shikamaru and Chouji, for Naruto and Sasuke, for Shino and Kiba and Hinata… But she doesn't know anyone; all these kids listening to their instructor are total strangers.
A little girl in the far right corner on the middle row grabs her attention. Ino takes a couple of steps closer, ignoring the sets of rules the chuunin at the front of the class is reciting while pointing at the chalkboard. The little girl has flaming red hair, messy and falling over her forehead and obscuring her vision. She has glasses on and she's curled into herself in such a manner that Ino briefly thinks of her best friend and wonders if little Karin has an Ino of her own.
She soon realizes she doesn't and is, in fact, the target of the other children's amusement.
They laugh at the color of her hair and her round cheeks and the fact that she wears glasses. But little Karin doesn't back down, glaring at them from over the lenses of her specks before walking away.
Karin graduates as a basic student; not at the top of the class and certainly not a dead last.
Ino watches as an older woman crouches down to Karin's height. Her hair is a dull red kept up in a tight bun; she places her hands on Karin's shoulders and says things to her that gets Karin to smile, softly. Ino gets closer, a smile of her own on her lips as she watches the interaction.
Her gray-blue eyes land on the hitai-ate tied around Karin's forehead with pride. The metal plate gleams under the sun and she stares at the Kusagakure emblem.
The scenery changes, again, and Ino is now in a forest. She looks around with a furrowed brow, listening to the echo of beasts hiding in the shadows, the hisses of snakes and the growl of an enormous bear about to devour a genin girl. It settles into her bones like a jolt of adrenaline.
The Forest of Death.
This happened four years ago; when Ino was forced to watch Sakura get beat up and stand down because Sakura needed to defend herself once and for all. This is when everything begins to go wrong, when they begin to lose Sasuke, when Ino realizes she's falling behind and blocked by Sakura's shadow—
She comes back to the matter at hand and Ino runs towards the fallen girl trying to pat around for her glasses.
"Move it!" she screams and lets out a string of curses under her breath because she has once again forgotten that she is nothing but a ghost.
Karin cradles her head as the bear tries to attack but the attack never comes and Ino looks up, her eyes growing wide as they land on Sasuke.
He stands over Karin like a savior, a gleam in his eyes as he eyes her scroll. Ino looks back down towards the genin on the ground, watching her slip her glasses back on and staring at Sasuke with this look and Ino groans. "I've been there, honey. Save yourself the torture."
"Tch," Sasuke scoffs, "You have the earth scroll, too."
He leaves, then, without a second thought and Ino watches him disappear.
And suddenly it is raining outside as she stands in the balcony of an apartment. The curtains aren't drawn and she watches a drenched Karin appear, scars on her body and bindings around one of her legs. The apartment looks untouched, as if no one has lived in it for weeks and Ino begins to wonder where Karin's mother has gone.
From the window, she watches as Karin drops down to her knees and hugs herself.
Before the entire memory dissolves she realizes that Karin is suddenly so very alone.
Ino returns to her body with a loud, guttural gasp, her eyes snapping open and her head banging against the concrete wall as she reels back.
Straight across from her, Karin arches her back and inhales sharply. She shakes her head, opening her eyes and staring at Ino with an ashen face. Ino runs a hand down her face, trying to calm her fast-beating heart and organizing everything she has just seen.
"You," she whispers, "Your mother… Died…?"
Karin shrugs a shoulder. "Yeah."
Karin doesn't reply.
"I will return," Ino says, standing up. "And we'll continue."
It goes quiet and Ino tries to gather herself, looking around the cell and the emptiness around it. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes and decides that they aren't getting any better—the village and the system. A war was wagered because of the cruelties and unfairness of the shinobi system—it's always because of the unfairness—and yet even after it, they're still in square one.
They aren't getting any better.
Her father's death was for nothing.
Ino stands up and she decides as the guard lets her out, as she walks away and leaves Karin in complete solitude, she decides that she will save her.
The door jingles and Ino looks up from the arrangement that she is fixing up. While her father is gone, his flowe shop lives on through her arrangements and everything her father taught her since she was a child. A lot more villagers walk in and sometimes she wonders if it's out of sympathy or if the villagers are truly happy that their shinobi returned home safe.
Naruto walks into the shop and Ino rests her chin on her pal, watching him approach the counter with that crooked smile and those bright blue eyes.
"What do you want, moron?" she asks in a draw, grabbing a daisy and twirling it in between two of her fingers.
He sobers up and Ino swallows hard. This is the Naruto that saved the world, this is the Naruto that has bled for everyone, this is the Naruto that grew up too fast and too alone. This sunshine boy with sunshine smiles and a heart so… so pure even with the darkness that surrounds it like a frame.
She sighs and gives him a smile.
"I hear you're interrogating Karin."
"Yeah," she says and she looks down at the daisy in her hand. Daisies stand for purity, for innocence, for beauty, for patience and for simplicities. How fitting, she tells herself ironically.
Naruto looks down and grabs a daisy of his own, a frown on his lips. He looks pensive and troubled and why is Naruto so troubled nowadays? Where's the idiot that pranked everyone?
"How is she?"
"Oh look at you," Ino sighs, slumping her shoulders. "Already feeling an attachment towards her; have you spoken to her?"
"I tried," he says, shrugging, "she didn't reply whenever I tried to make a conversation."
"Maybe she's scared."
"She's my cousin," he says, looking up at her and the look in his eyes tears her apart. "I…"
"You have family," she finishes for him.
Ino leans forwards and tucks the daisy behind Naruto's ear. She grins at him, pulling away and sitting back down on her stool. She looks outside, watching villagers pass by and interact with one another with bright smiles and booming laughter.
"Everything's going to be okay, doofus," she says, nodding her head.
Karin stares at her, her brow furrowed and her glasses sitting on the ground, next to her. Her jumpsuit is of a different color, today, and Ino thinks the gray looks pretty on her—gets her red hair to stand out. They're sitting across from each other in the center of the cell and they haven't spoken a word since Ino arrived.
But that's okay, Ino tells herself, she can wait and see if Karin has nothing to say.
She's nothing like the girl she'd mildly observed in the war, whenever she came in her line of vision. The girl back then was louder, more expressive… Deranged, even. She interacted with her rogue teammates and she followed orders with a scoff and a pout. This girl sitting in front of her is a complete opposite—cold eyes, quiet and angry.
Ino exhales and gives her a sharp smile. "Let's finish this now, okay?"
"Whatever," Karin says and if Ino didn't know any better, she'd think the girl is done fighting.
Ino manifests into a room where Karin is being assaulted by a man.
He has her shirt riding up to her chest, his hands touching places he shouldn't and his lips kissing the juncture where Karin's shoulder met her neck. Ino's eyes are wide as she takes in the scene before her, betting that this isn't the first time it's happened. This must be the home that took Karin in after her mother died.
This man has probably molested her since she arrived.
Karin's eyes sharpen with attention and Ino stares as she buries a kunai to the man's back. She shoves him off, fixing herself and grabbing her weapon's pouch from the ground. And then she begins to run as if her life is in danger; Ino runs after her, looking around and taking note that this isn't Kusagakure anymore.
Karin runs until she's in the outskirts of the village, just as that same village begins to be attacked by rogue shinobi, the buildings catching fire and burning everything down to the ground until it disappears forever.
Ino's eyes are wide as she turns back to Karin, watching her crouch down to the ground and curl into herself. They sit there for what seems like hours; Ino watches the fire that burns the village down, wondering how many homes Karin is going to end up losing.
That's when the footsteps come.
Orochimaru appears before Karin. He stares down at her with his golden eyes, his head tilting as he crouches down in front of her.
"How did you manage to survive?" he asks her.
Karin stares at him, her expression blank as she says, "I sensed the rogues coming."
Ino watches the interest that fills Orochimaru's eyes as he stands back to his full height, extending a hand towards her. "Come with me, child. I'll give you a new home."
Karin is experimented on and Ino is mortified to realize that she is alright with it.
She does not fight or argue with Orochimaru; rather she obeys his every order. The scenes scatter and change sloppily and with each one Karin begins to grow older. Ino watches her reel men in with her sexuality before sedating them and bringing them in to Orochimaru, she's watched her begin to experiment on them, she's watched men bite at her neck, her chest and her arms and heal when an experiment goes wrong.
And the scenes slow down when Karin is appointed the head guard in one of Orochimaru's base and a jailer.
Then come her adventures with the rogue team Taka and the eventual finding of Itachi.
Ino leaves these memories. She doesn't want to know about how deep Sasuke fell.
She manifests herself right when Karin is stabbed in the chest by one of Sasuke's jutsu.
"Sasuke… Is… This… All I am to you?"
Ino grits her teeth, watching her slump down to the ground, blood beginning to pool around her. The world around her disappears and turns black just as Ino makes a run towards Karin. It reanimates itself just when Sasuke is walking towards Karin with the intentions of ending her pain. And then it disappears again and reappears a few minutes later. Ino believes this is happening because of Karin teetering on the edge of losing consciousness and only returning to focus out of pure willpower.
When the memory floods back around her, Ino hears a familiar voice and her senses jolt up, her gray-blue eyes looking around the scenery.
"Sakura," she whispers, turning to watch as Sakura and Sasuke speak to each other.
It isn't until Sakura begins to approach Karin with the orders of killing her that Ino stands from her crouched position next to the dying girl. And it isn't until Karin whispers to Sakura to watch out, as Sasuke is going to attack her, that Ino knows that there is no way Karin can be killed by the Elders.
Not when she's saved the lives of two Konoha shinobi—not when the lives she saved were the lives of the Hokage and her apprentice.
She closes her eyes and wills herself to leave Karin's mind. There is no need to live any more memories.
When she comes to, she is more oriented than the first time.
She blinks out of her minor stupor, standing up and walking closer towards Karin's slumped form. She places her hands on Karin's shoulder and helps her up, her eyes softening and the back of her eyes stinging with the need to cry after living the life Karin's lived in short clips.
"I'm sorry," she breathes out, hugging her close and not really knowing why she's apologizing. "I'm so sorry."
Karin stares at her, an eyebrow raised. "Get off me."
"Konoha owes you a debt," Ino says, gathering herself and remembering her position. "You saved our Hokage and you saved a valuable kunoichi. Konoha owes you a debt and I will see to it that you are paid."
Ino takes a step back and observes this girl one last time. She's all red and cracked all over; a broken girl forced to put herself back together constantly. A survivor—she is a survivor and she's going to keep on surviving. She's leeched herself onto another strong being and it isn't Ino.
She turns towards the barred door and just as she's going to call for the guard, she pauses, turning to look at Karin from over her shoulder.
"This has nothing to do with my official business with you, but I must know," she says, "Why were you so loyal to Orochimaru? Your memories… You willingly let him experiment on you, willingly experimented on others for him… Illegaly… Why?"
Karin sits down on her bunk and flips her red hair over her shoulders. She stares at her directly, their eyes locking, her shoulders squared and her chin up in the air in defiance. "He was my savior. He saved me when I had nothing. If given the chance, I'd do it again." She blinked her eyes and looked away. "He saved me."
Ino can understand that.
Written for Sara, happy holidays you naked mole rat.
Here's the thing, this isn't the actual ending I wrote; I deleted about 3 scenes off of this because it felt rush and this, in reality, deserves (and demands) to be multichaptered to better explore things but... Well, I don't really have the time right now since I have Snake Charmer and other fics to finish. So I left it... A bit open ended because, hey, maybe one day I'll decide to shoot myself in the foot one more time and make it longer. But until then, I hope you enjoy and I hope Sara liked it.